by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
In order for us to understand exactly how 2021 LSU could be a success on the ground, we must first go back to go forward, venturing simultaneously through the past, present and future:
What does 2019 & 2020 LSU have to do with this upcoming season?
2019 = How it's done.
2020 = How bad it can get.
Now... stay with me.
2020's success hinged on James Cregg developing 2nd stringers or 2019 freshmen into powerhouse O-linemen...
Additionally, 2020 success depended on the evolution of our highly prized sophomore backs almost as much as it rested on chosen starter QB Myles Brennan taking the next step...and when our lack of a rushing attack was exposed or Myles Brennan went down after 3 weeks due to poor OL play, we inevitably lost games....
It all connects...one problem on the O-line, one mistake in running back rotation, one error by the quarterback when setting up protections, it can all create a myriad of issues in the backfield....and pretty soon, everyone's off.
Simply put, if LSU want to win another championship, let alone compete for the SEC, they must figure out their unsettled backfield by July....or we're in trouble.
Heading into 2021, RBs Coach Kevin Faulk is now working alongside OC Jake Peetz & OL James Cregg to fix this glaring issue.
Soon after Peetz's hire, constant injuries and uncertainty reared their ugly heads throughout the running back room's tumultuous Spring, bringing up a bevy of difficult questions.... while on the other hand, offering far more potential answers.
However, when looking at the recent past, we can begin to paint a picture of what may be on the horizon:
2020's running backs room contained a highly talented group (coached under first-time RBs Coach Kevin Faulk) but due to a combination of porous offensive line play, bad play-calling, as well as injuries & a horrific rotation, our rushers could only muster 3.3 yards per game through 10 outings (just over 121 as an entire team per game)...
...Other than LSU's nearly 300 yard frenzy vs South Carolina, our solid outing vs Vandy (led by Emery) or Ty Davis-Price's manhandling of Arkansas & Florida, the running game was never a source of reprieve.
And as I listed above, I don't feel the running backs themselves were the main reason for last year's failures on the ground:
When our 2019 freshmen duo lost mentor RBs Coach Tommie Robinson, few seemed to realize how big of an effect his absence would have.
Leaving for Texas A&M shortly following LSU's National Championship win, Robinson remains one of the most charismatic recruiters in the sport, helping pull in big time players regardless of position: Derek Stingley Jr, Stephen Carr, LB Damone Clark, DT Jaquelin Roy, OL Kardell Thomas & Cam Wire, while developing some of our best backs in recent memory Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Derrius Guice & Nick Brosette (among others).
Outside of Corey Kiner & Armoni Goodwin from the 2021 class, Tommie is also the man to bring in our entire current running back room.
Before his departure, T-Rob was well on his way to pushing Ty and John over the hill heading into 2020...although more than on-field guidance, his emotional support off the field anchored our young RBs.
No matter how you slice it, losing T-Rob's personal touch became a big blow for the Tigers' running back room...I've heard the family of a current LSU running back tell me so.
While Kevin Faulk is a Tigers Legend, a 3x Super Bowl Champion and will be a great coach soon enough, losing an established force such as T-Rob during a pandemic year was a perfect case of horrific timing...albeit with some silver linings:
Throughout 2019's 60 passing touchdown escapades, Clyde Edwards-Helaire led the SEC with 17 rushing touchdowns and Emery / TDP still recorded 10 combined scores as freshmen. Overall, 2019 LSU rushed for 32 touchdowns as a team....
In a wild case of extremity, 2020 LSU rushed for just 9 overall TDs, a mere 6 from our running backs (3 each for TDP & Emery).
Based on that evidence alone, you can't tell me Tommie Robinson's absence didn't affect the running game....
You can't tell me our lackadaisical offensive line didn't play a major factor of creeping negativity....
And of course, I believe LSU failed at the rotation last season....
So...how can LSU get back to 2019's elite level of rushing offense?
Throughout 2020, both Emery & TDP posted high octane per game averages, Ty coming in at 4.3 yards per carry and John at an even 5 yards (Emery with 29 fewer carries).
Those appear to be fantastic numbers on the surface, but when you look closer at the game by game performances, next to our lack of coordination between O-Line and running game, a more clearer picture is revealed:
LSU rushed for 3 yards or less in 5 contests last year, losing 4 of those games; but the reading grows worse by the digit...against 3 of those 5 opponents, our running backs collectively rushed for 2.1 yards or less...twice hitting the calamitous mark of 1.2 against Auburn and 1.4 against A&M.
Against Auburn, our entire team hit its lowest point, yet our running game went down further depths....32 total yards from 27 carries...an abomination.
While Emery had his worst outing as a Tiger, Ty Davis-Price was handed the ball just 3 times for 0 yards....it was madness out there.
Heading into 2021, I see exactly where this unit can improve and hopefully explode:
Last year, our backs were far too afraid to hit any opening in front of them. Too often they hesitated, our O-Line couldn't hold and then they were often buried in the backfield before anyone could blink.
There were drives during 2020 where Ty Davis-Price or John Emery were in a rhythm, absolutely bending the defense to their will, finally putting the front seven on their heels....only to be taken out for the other. Coming in cold from the bench at the worst moment, the next play would inevitably be a telegraphed bread and butter call, and our backs would get pummeled, our offense completely losing momentum as a result.
This is the season where we must see our running backs finally given momentum in play design, based around anchoring / versatile offensive line protection, backed by an unpredictable variety of pre-snap movements.....all created to give our running backs time & thrust.
Offensive Coordinator Jake Peetz & RBs Coach Kevin Faulk continue to study LSU's new unit as much as possible, wondering how best to utilize and maximize their third year backs.
Speaking of their eligibility, remember either TDP, Emery or both could gain an extra year of eligibility, too. Because of that fact, I fully believe the running back who wins the job will go to the NFL after 2021 and whoever ranks second will opt in for that extra year.
Just like QB, it's as high stakes as it can get:
2020 was a weird season for John Emery...at one point he averaged 11.3 yards per rush against Alabama, taking a blistering run 54 yards to the house, cutting, shifting and following his blockers beautifully; he scored with a walk-in touchdown from 12 yards out vs Vanderbilt, before capping his 3 overall TDs with a stunning dive up and over Will Muschamp's South Carolina.
During the 3 outings where he scored, Emery enjoyed his best days of the season; Those performances are highlighted by topsy turvy runs where John burned or busted defenders with his outrageous agility & split second change of direction.
He's The Bayou Blur.
When Emery came up against opponents he couldn't beat on the edge (Auburn, A&M, Miss State, Florida, A&M or Missouri) he became a one-trick pony, sadly....completely defying the 5 star recruit's multi-dimensional powers.
Keep one thing in mind, though: this was John's first season post-eye surgery...reality tells us it was going to take him a season to get used to the visual changes. Many forget he played most of his footballing career using only a single eye.
While I couldn't stand his sideline laughing at Auburn or his liability as a pass-protector (also seen in the same game), Emery could end up being an intriguing receiving piece too, catching a slim 14 passes for 72 yards last year, resulting in some big gains.
This is an area LSU are seeking to improve: passing to our backs.
Recently, I enjoyed watching a 10 minute practice tape focused on Emery's receiving drills from a few weeks ago: Even while banged up, John has elevated his pass catching for 2021.
Emery is a truly stellar talent: the Destrehan product possesses an ability to score from anywhere on the field at any time...a power which may be singular among our Running Backs room.
Regardless of his talents, he is yet to fully take the reins.
After 2 seasons, 19 appearances, 7 TDs from 134 touches equaling 566 rushing yards and 133 extra through the air, Emery is still yet to fulfill the forecasted potential his pedigree affords him every off-season:
Emery is always the first running back to be mentioned by coaches, to the point most fans believe he's already the starter due to these continued high expectations; Because of Clyde's 2019 rise, last year's inconsistent backfield play & this Spring's banged up shoulder, John has been relegated to the role of supporting player throughout his LSU tenure.
He will be itching to return and make a statement....
On the other side of the coin, Ty Davis-Price's 2020 season turned out to be more consistent, posting two 100 yard outings in which TDP not only influenced LSU victories, the local Baton Rouge-native dominated & drained the opposition.
Sure, every rushing attack would love to have a home run hitter, a guy who can take it to the house at any time, but what this Tigers' spread offense need most is a controlling, evolving, unpredictable, multi-faceted rotisserie of rushing profiles able to gash and blast defenses into the atmosphere of their own fiction....and Ty Davis-Price fits the bill.
Down to 210 pounds coming out of Spring ball, Ty holds the #1 running back spot after he pulled off a fine performance throughout the Spring game, posting 76 yards from 15 carries.
Ty displayed his underrated pace in the second level, making safety Jordan Toles miss at a high speed, cruising and bruising through LSU's aggressive defenders. He broke through tackles, grabbed key first downs and showed something John Emery hasn't thus far:
Beyond mere reliability, TDP is equipped with special moves in the backfield, able to get himself out of trouble thanks to one slight turn of his hips. His legs become a turbine, eatlng up every blade of grass in his path...
Ty's 28 yard run, as well as his near 20 yard burst later on, both highlight a subtle combination of high octane finesse and stolen skull brutality that only Ty Davis-Price can provide.
We also witnessed Ty, only just back from injury, tirelessly motioning out wide fron the backfield or vice versa for 3 1/2 quarters; we watched him involved in play action before slipping off for a route...finally, after a year in the abyss, Davis-Price will be used as he should've been all along.
Though he only received 3 targets (including 1 on the first play of the game), Ty is intriguing as a receiving running back....just look at his diving touchdown catch vs Arkansas (which was wrongly disallowed)..no matter what orthodox thinking tells you, Ty isn't just a power guy....
Concerning both local National Champions, this last Sunday our Offensive Coordinator, RBs Coach and analyst Collin D'Angelo hosted the Davis-Price & Emery families for a nice dinner at Jake Peetz's home. Kevin Faulk, clad in a diamond #3 necklace, posed in a photo for Instagram next to Ty Davis-Price, taking a turn wearing Faulk's #3 chain.